Lunch Wars: USA vs. India

September 3, 2013

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Do you know what your children eat at school? Do you really know?

The lunches served in American school cafeterias are supposed to contain everything a growing kid needs. Sometimes they do. But they are also loaded with fat, sodium, additives, artificial sweeteners, and other nasty stuff.

Schools serve up lots of processed, packaged, and deep-fried foods to our children. The “ketchup is a vegetable” controversy has blown over – it was exaggerated to begin with –but the fact remains that American school lunches are packed with sugar, salt, and fat.

There are about 200 school days every year. On each of those days, about 31 million schoolchildren eat two meals in school cafeterias – generally breakfast and lunch. That sounds great, right? It could be. But most schools regularly serve obesity-triggering offerings, including pizza, chicken nuggets, french fries, and sweetened chocolate milk.

Kids crave unhealthy foods in other countries too, but somehow the schools manage to satisfy them without resorting to junk food. Even the poorest countries sometimes do a better job of feeding their kids than America does. Case in point: India.

A Tale of Two Cafeterias

America does excel in some ways. Despite occasional, well-publicized failures, the Food and Drug Administration does a great job of keeping food consistently healthy and free from toxins.

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Other countries have a hard time meeting that standard. In a well-publicized tragedy, 23 students died of pesticide poisoning after eating lunch at a school in the Indian village of Dharmasati Gandawa.

While these terrible accidents can happen anywhere, they are more common in poor countries like India, which lack the resources to conduct comprehensive testing and control procedures.

But let’s take a look at what cafeterias offer kids. The components of a school meal in the U.S. are processed, non-local, out-of-season, fatty, sugary foods.

In India, school meals are mostly fresh, local, in-season, and very low in fats and sugars. Pizza simply doesn’t compare to handmade Indian food, especially dal, sambar, masala, and curries.

A 2011 German study of free meals provided to children in Indian schools listed a variety of healthy dishes: rice, lentils, sambhar, nuts, bananas, dal, seasonal vegetables, sabji, pulao, karhi, khichri, bakli, eggs, roti, potatos, ghooghari, mutter paneer, yogurt, and fruit.

The homely meals don’t include much protein, but they are wholesome, locally prepared, and free of the fats and sugars that lead so many American schoolchildren down a path toward obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other ailments.

In terms of instilling bad habits and risking long-term health problems, the U.S. and India couldn’t be further apart. Most FDA-approved meals are non-toxic, but that’s a very low standard. What they really are, is carefully prepared, tasty triggers for eventual cardiovascular disease.

What Can Be Done

If you are a parent, talk to your school’s administration and find out what meals are offered. Find out if they use deep-fried, reheated, or frozen foods. Do they serve sugary soft drinks? High-calorie chocolate milk? If so, tell other parents. Organize a letter-writing campaign or attend a school-board meeting. School boards are often surprisingly responsive to feedback from parents.

You might even try reaching out to members of your school’s cafeteria staff. They may well feel the same way you do, and welcome your involvement as an opportunity to restructure school lunches. In the worst case, if your school proves unwilling to change, send your kids to school with bagged lunches.

They may feel self-conscious at first, but they may well find there’s something heartwarming about opening a container of leftovers from a family meal, or eating a sandwich that was packed especially for them by a caring parent.

The few minutes you spend preparing their lunches every day could translate into longer, healthier lives for your kids – and at the very least, it’s a tangible way of letting them know you love them.


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